Mike Pearson had heard the stories but wanted to find out for himself. Last fall he did a little detective work, poking through an abandoned vineyard some 30 miles east of Lewiston.
"We were looking for grapes, trying to identify them by the cluster," he said of century-old vines rumored to have been, at least briefly, owned by the Rothschilds of Bordeaux. After a subtle, but suspenseful pause, he added: "We did find five or six different cultivars on the site."
Pearson took cuttings from those vines, packed them up and, in proper CSI fashion, sent them off to the University of California at Davis for DNA analysis. The results were intriguing--and backed up the stories he'd heard about the Lewiston area's wine-infused past. The cuttings--classic French varieties like petit syrah, petite verdot and cabernet franc--gave credence to a local historian's claim that the Lewiston-Clarkston Valley between Lewiston and Clarkston, Wash., was once the Northwest's first internationally recognized winemaking region.
Evidence shows that in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, when Walla Walla, Wash., the Willamette Valley and the Sunnyslope area of southwestern Idaho were toddling through their winemaking infancies, this steep-walled confluence of the Clearwater and Snake rivers was winning awards and drawing admirers from places like the Napa Valley and Europe.
Then came Prohibition. The industry crashed. At least one prominent Lewiston winemaker, Robert Schleicher, eventually shipped his unmarketable labor up to Moscow, where it was unceremoniously converted into vinegar. He died of heart failure shortly thereafter. For the next 100 years, the valley literally buried its winemaking past under wheat fields, rail yards and Lewiston's sprawling paper mill.
A few years ago, though, interest in the region's wine-tinted past seemed to re-sprout like new vines from forgotten rootstock. Together and individually, aspiring winemakers suddenly picked up shovels and fired up back hoes in the hope of resurrecting the region's grape-growing glory days.
It's safe to say that no one has ever mistaken Lewiston for Bordeaux, but back in the 1870s, French immigrants apparently saw the region's potential.
"In some ways, it makes sense--when you look at the terrain around here and compare it to some French terrain--that people would think these upriver valleys, their steep canyons would be a good place to plant grapes," said Mike Pearson, one of the area's newest winemakers and owner of Colter's Creek Vineyards and Winery near Juliaetta.
You only have to walk through one of Pearson and wife Melissa Sanborn's young vineyards clinging to tawny hillsides like a Wine Spectator photo spread to see what early pioneers pictured in their heads.
A French immigrant named Louis Delsol was the first person to imagine wine grapes on those treeless slopes, according to Robert N. Wing, the historian who preserved and publicized Lewiston's wine history.
"The importation and planting of European cuttings on two acres of land two miles east of Lewiston in 1872 marked the beginning of a wine and grape growing industry that brought fame to the valley from far outside its boundaries," Wing wrote of Delsol's first vineyard.
Robert Scheicher, another Frenchman who studied wine culture as a child, arrived in Lewiston that same year and, seeing how well Delsol's vineyards were doing, eventually planted his own. Both men built wineries, others followed and business flourished. In a June 3, 1905, Lewiston Tribune article, Scheicher was quoted as having said, "My candid opinion is that this is the best place in the United States for grape growing ... [and] there is no reason why it should not be the leading industry here."
In 1908 the Tribune reported that 40 varieties of grapes were being cultivated in the area and that "these grapes have taken first prize over California in the last three great world's fairs."
Two years later, Lewiston voted a ban on alcoholic beverages, and in 1916 Idaho and Washington went completely dry.
If not for the work of writer Robert Wing in recent decades, the region's wine history might have died with the wine industry itself. Wing spent years pouring over those old newspaper articles and vineyard records, exploring the remains of wineries and wine cellars and collecting old photographs. He never confirmed the Rothschilds family connection to Lewiston, but nevertheless put together a portrait of a region that he concluded was on the verge of becoming "one of the great wine-producing regions of the world."
Wing now suffers from Alzheimer's, but his books, articles and personal winemaking efforts left a detailed guide for Pearson and others, bridging the gap between the valley's 19th and 21st century winemakers.
"Bob Wing saved the wine history in the valley," said Coco Umiker, another of Lewiston's new winemakers. "He basically took the initiative to compile all the historical information together and save it for generations to come so we would all know what was here years ago."
Wing's research gave Umiker, husband Karl and their partners the courage to jump into winemaking in 2002.
"The one little bit of evidence that we had to give us comfort in what we were choosing to do was Bob Wing's little vineyard up at his place," she said. "We were actually making some wine with him and we could see very clearly that [the region's winemaking past] wasn't a story. It was real. The only reason it wasn't happening in 2002 was because no one was doing it. Someone needed to just step up and do it."
The needed incentive arrived in the form of a master gardener's conference held in Asotin County, on the Washington side of the valley, in 2001. Trying to drum up interest in grape growing and winemaking in the region, the conference resonated with many who attended. In 2004, Coco and Karl Umiker's Clearwater Canyon Cellars in Lewiston and Basalt Cellars in Clarkston opened, as did two other area wineries.
"It was as if we all just finally took the leap all at the same time," Coco Umiker said. "All of a sudden, where there were no wineries before, boom, four of us all at once."
Years might pass before this new generation of Lewiston-Clarkston winemakers are seeing anything close to the accolades their predecessors once enjoyed, but they've already won awards. Both Clearwater Canyon and Colter's Creek took gold and sliver at a Northwest Wine Press competition last fall. The winemaking community is also putting together paperwork to get the Lewiston-Clarkston Valley recognized as Idaho's second American Viticulture Area (the Snake River Valley AVA was the first).
At a wine tasting at Clearwater Canyon Cellars in Lewiston on a Saturday afternoon, the Umikers were pouring a little liquid evidence of the region's winemaking potential.
"We started with Lochsa white, which is excellent," Clarkston wine taster Dave Witthaus said. "And then we moved on to the malbec, which is fantastic. The malbec is a really deep, dark red wine. Then we finished up with Clearwater Canyon Carmenere, which is phenomenal."
More than a few of the 750 cases of wine Clearwater Canyon now produces annually left the building that afternoon, which certainly helped reassure Karl Umiker that he was about to do the right thing: Ten days later, he would quit his job as a soil scientist at the University of Idaho and devote himself full time to winemaking.
"It's a leap of faith," Coco Umiker said as tasters left the building, "but suddenly the wine industry is not just a hobby anymore, it's actually supporting people's employment here in the valley. "
Karl Umiker nodded.
"It feels like we're pioneers in a way...[trying] to unlock that grape-growing magic that was there back in the early 1900s."
Slideshows Lewiston Wineries
By Guy Hand